Administrative Assistant's Race Discrimination Claim Survives

In McCallum v. Billy Graham Evangelistic Ass'n, 2011 WL 3438756, Case No. 3:09CV381-RLV (W.D.N.C. Aug. 5, 2011), the court held that the church autonomy doctrine does not deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction nor exempt the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) from defending against the plaintiff's race discrimination claim under Title VII. The plaintiff worked as an administrative assistant in the Global Ministries Division of BGEA. She became concerned that BGEA was inviting only white people to events. One week after she shared her concern, she was notified that her department was being downsized and her job eliminated. Allegedly, the only job downsized in her department was hers. The plaintiff sued for racial discrimination and retaliation and BGEA moved to dismiss her claims. The court denied the motion to dismiss the plaintiff's discrimination claim on the ground that BGEA failed to demonstrate that the church autonomy doctrine bars the plaintiff's lawsuit or that her position falls within the ministerial exception inasmuch as her primary duties do not entail traditional ministerial functions. The court observed, "Nothing in the record suggests that McCallum had decisionmaking authority or substantive input regarding the content of BGEA's religious message." The court acknowledged that BGEA's "substantive defense to McCallum's claim, is likely to pose the very type of entanglement issue that the church autonomy doctrine and ministerial exception seek to avoid." About this, the court stated that it would keep "off-limits" certain "doctrinal topics" to include BGEA's "decision-making process with respect to its missions ministry," but would not be "entirely shielded … from having to respond and provide any legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the elimination of plaintiff's position … ." The court dismissed the plaintiff's retaliation claim, because she alleged that the retaliation against her was due to her questioning of BGEA's evangelism and ministry process, not due to her complaints concerning her own discriminatory treatment in the workplace. In other words, she failed to plead that the retaliation was for unlawful employment practices.

Principal's Contract and Tort Claims Barred

In Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, 301 Conn. 759, 23 A. 3d 1192 (Conn. Aug. 2, 2011), the court held, in keeping with authority from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, that the ministerial exception barred a former principal's action against the Archdiocese and a priest. The former principal claimed that, by not renewing her contract of employment, the Archdiocese: breached an implied contract, an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and the doctrine of promissory estoppel; terminated her employment in violation of public policy; negligently inflicted emotional distress; and tortuously interfered with the principal's business expectancies. In reaching its conclusion, the court considered whether adjudicating the claims and defenses would require the court to intrude into a religious institution's exclusive right to decide matters pertaining to doctrine or its internal governance or organization. The court held that the contract and promissory estoppel claims would require the court "to police the Archdiocese's compliance with its own internal procedures." The court ruled that the remainder of the claims "arise directly from, and in furtherance of, the defendants' decision to terminate the employment of the plaintiff – a ministerial employee – and requiring the court to determine whether any proffered religious reasons are a pretext for unlawful action would amount to judging the employment decisions of the church." It was undisputed that the plaintiff's duties rendered her a ministerial employee.

Members' Claims for Violations of Nonprofit Act and Outrageous Conduct Survive

In Johnson v. Antioch United Holy Church, Inc., 2011 WL 3569830, Case No. COA11-24 (N.C. Appl. Aug. 16, 2011), former members sued officers of their church, alleging a number of violations of the North Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act such as the officers exercising corporate powers without a board of directors in violation of the bylaws, failure to maintain audited financial statements as required by bylaws and failure to keep permanent records of meetings, members, or accounting records. The plaintiffs also alleged that the officers were wasting church property, causing the church to engage in transactions prohibited by the IRS, putting the church's tax-exempt status in jeopardy and thereby putting plaintiffs at risk of having to pay taxes for donated funds. Last, one plaintiff alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress when an officer delivered a letter to the plaintiff as notice of the "removal of her name" as a member. The trial court dismissed the case and imposed Rule 11 sanctions on the plaintiffs on the grounds that it concerned an internal church governance dispute, but the appellate court reversed: "Whether Defendants' actions were authorized by the bylaws of the church in no way implicates an impermissible analysis by the court based on religious doctrine or practice." The court likewise determined that the allegations in the complaint of the defendant's outrageous conduct in delivering the letter to the plaintiff met the pleading requirements of the common law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Director of Faith Formation's Contract Claim Certified to Wisconsin Supreme Court

In DeBruin v. St. Patrick Congregation, 2011 WL 3591697, Case No. 2010AP2705 (Wis. App. Aug. 17, 2011), the court certified the question to the Wisconsin Supreme Court "whether the religious liberty protections found in the Wisconsin Constitution are so broad as to shield religious organizations from common law breach of contract lawsuits brought by ministerial employees." The church fired the plaintiff, who was the director of faith formation, for allegedly failing to do a background check. She had signed a one-year contract providing that she could not be discharged without good and sufficient cause. The plaintiff sued the church for breach of contract. The court determined that the plaintiff was "unquestionably [] a ministerial employee," but considered it significant that she might not be a "member of the clergy." The decision discusses multiple cases pro and con for adjudicating a breach of contract claim such as the plaintiff's. Without clearly ruling as such, the court appeared to find a consensus that the plaintiff's claim should be adjudicated unless the Wisconsin Constitution has broader religious liberty protections than the First Amendment.

Pastor's Defamation and Contract Claims Barred

In Indiana Area Foundation of the United Methodist Church, Inc. v. Snyder, Case No. 49A05-1011-CT-715, 2011 WL 3840993 (Ind. App. Aug. 31, 2011), the court held that alleged defamatory statements involving a pastor's fitness for ministry that were either intra-church communications made to parishioners or church officials regarding the pastor's status as a minister or made to medical professionals in furtherance of assessing the pastor's competency to minister should be dismissed under the church autonomy doctrine. The court also granted summary judgment on the pastor's breach of contract claim premised upon The Book of Discipline for the reason that the plaintiff failed to prove an enforceable contract or whether the defendants breached the purported contract or that the breach could be shown without excessive entanglement in church doctrine in violation of the First Amendment.